Fighting Mosquitoes the Natural Way

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Human mosquito magnets preparing to venture outdoors this summer may not have to resort to slathering potentially-harmful chemicals onto their bodies to be bite-free. Natural products could be a safer way to repel those pesky buzzing bugs. That is, if they actually work for you.

What’s Wrong With DEET?

Extensive toxicity testing has found that DEET, a common ingredient in popular bug repellents, isn’t harmful when your exposure to the chemical is brief, notes the Environmental Protection Agency, but the number of conditions for safe use of the bug repellent is lengthy, and the agency doesn’t say what exactly it considers to “brief” exposure to the chemical.

For instance, traditional mosquito repellants like those made by OFF! contain DEET and can be used on exposed skin but shouldn’t be used under clothing, over irritated skin or in enclosed areas, the EPA warns.

The repellent should be removed using soap and water when you return indoors, and clothes that may have DEET on them should be washed before wearing again, the government agency says. The EPA says it doesn’t expect consumers to have long-term exposure to the chemical, but not everyone follows the directions and washes bug spray off as soon as they’re out of mosquitoes’ reach.

Additionally, while several studies have shown that DEET is safe for the general population, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported side effects including lethargy, headaches, tremors, involuntary movements, seizures, and convulsions in children and delays in fetal development after continued exposure to DEET.

The Alternatives: Citronella

Bugs are attracted to humans by our smells and the carbon dioxide we breathe out, and DEET works by confusing bugs’ sense of smell, according to the Illinois Department of Public Heath. But essential oils and other natural scents can deter mosquitoes from biting you as well.

Citronella, an ingredient that can be found in candles and Tiki torch fuel, is also used in some insect repellent sprays for the body.

While Citronella oil has been widely used since 1948 without serious side effects according to the EPA, its insect-repelling effects when used on the skin may just last for 20 minutes or less, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2002.

The Alternatives: Garlic

Garlic is often used as a mosquito repellent both for the body and for use in outdoor areas where mosquitoes tend to swarm. But whether it works for you may depend on your body chemistry.

Some garlic enthusiasts suggest eating a whole clove of garlic per day to keep the bugs away, rubbing garlic oil into your skin or taking an over-the-counter nutritional supplement containing garlic, but it may not actually work for everyone.

“There is no scientific evidence that eating garlic, vitamins, onions, or any other food will make a person repellent to mosquitoes. The attractant level of each individual to biting arthropods is based on a complex interaction of many chemical and visual signals,” explain researchers at the University of Florida.

Other Essential Oil Concoctions

There are plenty of strong scents that can make a bug’s sense of smell go haywire. Any number of essential oils including basil, cedarwood, juniper, lemon, myrrh, rosemary and pine could keep mosquitoes at bay when you’re outdoors, according to Mother Earth News.

All you have to do is rub a bit of it on exposed skin or dab it on your clothing, according to Mother Earth.

Using any natural insect repelling option may also require you to buy a product more frequently, since they may not last as long as the potentially more harmful chemical might. And just because a repellant is considered natural doesn’t mean it’s completely safe. Allergic reactions as well as interactions with other topical products may occur. And actually, while products containing DEET are tested and approved by government agencies, not all natural treatments have been.

If none of the more natural alternatives work, however, the EPA remains convinced that using DEET-based insect repellents is safe. The American Mosquito Control Association says repellents should be used sparingly and that concentrations of more than 30% DEET should be avoided, however. And, of course, you may be able to deter biting bugs a bit by simply wearing long sleeves and long pants.

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